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British Journalist Thinks The World Owes Latin America an Apology for the So-Called ‘War on Drugs’

Johann Hari. Photograph taken from the Wikipedia Commons. From the public domain.

The following is a republication of the interview by Estefanía Sepúlveda Portilla (ESP) for the Chilean media collective Pousta and was originally published on their website under a Creative Commons 4.0 licence. In this republication, the interview will be released in two parts.

British journalist Johann Hari (JH) decided one day to take a critical look at the theme of drug addiction, for reasons more personal than journalistic. In his investigation, he discovered that the so-called “War on Drugs” — the global policy driven by the United States and later forcibly exported to Mexico and the rest of Latin America tackling the problem of drugs, weapons and prisons — had been going on for 100 years.

The studies and the scientific evidence do not support the strategy, but this has not put the brakes on international policies. Meanwhile, the problem becomes more and more complex and spreads to various countries throughout the region, with no end in sight. A total contradiction, no matter how you look at it. With a passion for journalism and the fire of an issue that affected him personally, Johann embarked on a three-year-long journey that spanned 15 countries in his search for answers.

The end result is his book “Chasing the Scream“, which analyzes and questions the perceptions that have been used to defend the continued conflict. According to Hari, in his first statement during the interview:

Una de las razones por las cuales investigué tanto tiempo este tema fue porque mi primer recuerdo de niño es de intentar despertar a un tío que yo pensaba que estaba dormido y no pude. Después descubrí que había problemas de adicción a las drogas en mi familia.

One of the reasons I investigated this topic for so long was because my first memory as a child was of trying to wake up my uncle, who I thought was sleeping, and I couldn't. Later I discovered there were drug addiction problems in my family.

Then, he continued explaining the background of his work: “When I started I was a bit arrogant, I thought I knew a lot about all this, but I realized that I didn't even know the most basic questions on the topic,” he recalls. “These were,” he says, counting on his fingers via Skype, “Why did we start a war 100 years ago against addicts and drug consumers? Why did we continue if it was a disaster? What alternatives to this strategy exist? What is it that turns people into drug addicts?”

Johann launches these four questions himself, before we can ask anything. Before we even finished translating them mentally, he continues talking:

JH Quería sentarme con gente que hubiese estado realmente metida en esto, que hayan visto sus vidas afectadas por el tema. Estuve en 15 países y finalmente conocí a un montón de gente, una mezcla muy loca, extraña y diferente: desde una persona trans que vendía crack en Brooklyn, hasta un sicario para uno de los carteles más violentos de Juárez de México. Estuve en Portugal, el único país del mundo que ha descriminalizado el consumo de todas las drogas, con resultados sorprendentes. Mi mayor conclusión al respecto es que todo lo que creemos que sabemos sobre adicción está mal: las drogas no son lo que creemos, la guerra contra las drogas tampoco.

JH I wanted to sit down with people who had really been immersed in this, who had seen their lives affected by it. I was in 15 countries and by the end I met a lot of people, a crazy mixed bag, strange and different: from a trans person who sold crack in Brooklyn, to a hired killer for one of the most violent cartels in Juárez, Mexico. I was in Portugal, the only country in the world that has decriminalized all drug consumption, with surprising results. My biggest conclusion, then, is that everything we think we know about addiction is wrong: drugs are not what we think, and neither is the war on drugs.

ESP: Let's start at the beginning. How and why did the ‘War on Drugs’ start?

JH Es bien interesante, porque yo pensaba lo mismo que todo el mundo te respondería ahora en la calle: que fue porque no querían que la gente se hiciera adicta, o que los niños consumieran. Pero no, no tenía nada que ver con eso. Fue fascinante encontrarme con la historia de Harry Anslinger, que es el creador de la “Guerra contra las drogas”. Él llegó al cargo de Director del Departamento de Prohibición del Alcohol en Estados Unidos, justo cuando la prohibición llegaba a su fin. Tenía un gran departamento y un gran cargo encima y nada que hacer; entonces, básicamente inventó esta guerra para mantener vivo el departamento. Lo hizo basándose en las tres cosas que más odiaba en el mundo, que eran los afroamericanos, los latinos y los drogadictos. Armó toda una burocracia basada en fuertes prejuicios sociales, para oprimir a esos grupos.

JH It's pretty interesting, because I thought the same as what anybody else would tell you on the street: it was because they didn't want people to become addicts, or that they didn't want kids to take drugs. But no, it didn't have anything to do with that. It was fascinating to come across the story of Harry Anslinger, the creator of the ‘War on Drugs’. He was given the position of Director of the Bureau of Prohibition in the United States, right when the prohibition was ending. He had this huge agency and a top position, but nothing to do. So he basically invented this war in order to keep the bureau alive. And he did it based on the three things he hated most in the world: African Americans, Latinos and drug addicts. He put together a whole bureaucracy based on strong social prejudices to oppress these groups.

How does Latin America come into play?

JH Ése es el corazón de la guerra contra las drogas. Cuando prohíben las drogas, éstas no desaparecen, solo pasan de manos de doctores y farmacéuticos, a narcotraficantes armados, y luego Estados Unidos culpa a México sobre esto, lo que es bastante irónico si ves que ahora, cien años después, Trump armó su campaña sobre esta idea. El gobierno de México en ese momento hizo algo bastante inteligente y valiente. Le dijeron a Estados Unidos: “Vimos lo que están haciendo, pero no funciona”. Entonces ponen a Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra a cargo de las políticas de drogas. Él tenia un centro de rehabilitación, conocía el tema. Entonces dice, ‘La cannabis realmente no es dañina, no deberíamos prohibirla. Sobre el problema con las otras drogas, se necesita tratar a los adictos con amor compasión y tratamiento, pero no hay que prohibir las drogas porque si hacemos eso las drogas van a ser controladas por traficantes, gángsters, y carteles.’ Si hay alguien en el mundo al que la historia le haya dado la razón es a Leopoldo Salazar, ¿no te parece?

JH This is the core of the ‘War on Drugs’. When they ban drugs, they don't disappear, they just go from the hands of doctors and pharmacists to armed drug dealers, and then the United States blames Mexico for it, which is pretty ironic if you see that now, 100 years later, Trump pitched his campaign on this idea. The Mexican government at that time did something pretty intelligent and brave.They told the United States, ‘We saw what you're doing, and it doesn't work’. So they put Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra in charge of drug policy. He owned a rehabilitation center and was familiar with the issue. Then he said, ‘Cannabis really isn't harmful, we shouldn't ban it. On the problem of other drugs, addicts need to be treated with love and compassion and medical care, but drugs must not be banned because if they are, they will be controlled by the dealers, the gangsters and the cartels’. If there's anyone in the world who history has proven right, it's Leopoldo Salazar, don't you think?

ESP: Totally.

JH La respuesta de Estados Unidos fue, ‘Sáquenlo’. México dijo que creía en él, y entonces Estados Unidos, fiel a su estilo, se puso amenazante, y en venganza, dejaron de exportar a México los opiáceos para medicamentos legales que se hacían en Estados Unidos. Y gente empezó a morir. Entonces, México tuvo que ceder. Así, esta guerra contra las drogas se expandió a toda Latinoamérica.

JH The United States’ response was, ‘Take him out’. Mexico said they believed in him, and then the United States, true to style, got all threatening and in retaliation, stopped exporting legal medical opiates made in the United States to Mexico. And people started to die. So Mexico had to give up. That's how the war on drugs spread to all of Latin America.

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